Could the Arpaio pardon be Trump’s Waterloo?

Will the disgraceful pardon of the brazenly racist Sheriff Joe Arpaio be Trump’s Waterloo? It certainly should be. Trump has done what no other “president” in recent U.S. history has ever done: He has, by his actions, endorsed virulent racism, lauded flagrant white supremacy, and praised the holding of people of color—specifically Latinos—in what by Arpaio’s own admission he proudly called a “concentration camp.”

As sheriff of Maricopa County, Ariz., Arpaio was infamous for his racial profiling, arrest, and confinement of Latinos in tents in triple-digit Arizona temperatures. This hardcore racist was most vilely known for the establishment of the “Tent City,” a huge outdoor jail that at its height held 1,700 inmates. It was opened by Arpaio in 1993.

The conditions at this facility were incredible. Surrounded by an electrified fence, it was, according to Amnesty International, inhumane, dangerous, and overcrowded. For months at a time, those sentenced for minor crimes, such as shoplifting, slept under cloth tents on bunk beds resting on large cement slabs. During the summer, temperatures could easily reach 130 degrees. I’m familiar with the Phoenix heat, having lived there in the early 1990s. It is stifling, like being in a pizza oven. So it’s no surprise that one detainee described being in Tent City as feeling “like you are in a furnace.”

The living conditions were minimalist in that the inmates were provided only two meals a day, valued at $0.30 each. Cigarettes and coffee were banned.

Inmates were forced to work on chain gangs, which had been discontinued in other parts of the U.S. in 1955. The outdoor jail also had the only all-female chain gang. Inmates were publicly paraded through the local streets to be humiliated.

Women were particularly abused at Tent City. The Justice Department found examples of Latina inmates being “denied basic sanitary items,” “forced to remain with sheets or pants soiled from menstruation,” or put in solitary confinement because they could not understand English.

A federal court found Arpaio guilty, in 2011, of these illegal activities and ordered him and his deputies to cease detaining Latinos during patrols based simply on suspicion of their immigration status, rather than on any traffic offenses. But the racial profiling, arrests, and imprisonment continued unabated. Arpaio was found guilty by another federal judge in July of criminal contempt for disobeying the previous court order. He was due to be sentenced on Oct. 5 and faced up to six months in prison for willfully violating a federal court order.

But, in walks Trump to save the day for this apartheid lawman. On Friday, Aug. 25, late in the evening, under the cover of Hurricane Harvey, one of the worst weather disasters in recent memory, Trump cravenly issued a pardon to the arch-racist, Arpaio. Trump undoubtedly thought that the humanitarian crisis would overshadow this cowardly act. Notwithstanding the horrific climate crisis barreling down on Texas, a firestorm of criticism was sparked by the pardon.

Trump has the temerity to call Arpaio a great American patriot” when this unmitigated racist operated a jail that approached detention conditions reminiscent of the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. Indeed, Latino prisoners chanted “Hitler! Hitler!” in protest when TV news reporters came to Tent City in 2009. It is a shame on America that this atrocity was open for so long. Inmates were subjected to humiliation and torture for 24 long years.

It is a further disgrace for this country that its chief executive issued a pardon to the public official responsible for this abomination. Trump has made a mockery of what little rule of law there is left in this country.

Much of the reproach has come from Trump’s own Republican Party, with Paul Ryan and John McCain censuring him. Even Trump’s own secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, was left unable to defend the action, simply stating, “The president speaks for himself.” All are apparently distancing themselves from the increasingly isolated commander in chief.

This pardon is a green light to further turn loose the racist “dogs of war,” to further embolden the backward, hate-filled segments of this society. It is an invitation to violence that could well ignite a civil conflict in this country the likes of which have not been seen since the Civil War.

That the rest of the world is alarmed by developments in the U.S. is shown by the issuance of a formal “early warning” over the racial situation in the country by a United Nations committee tasked with combating racism. This is an exceptional move that often signals the potential for an impending civil struggle.

This pardon might well have been the proverbial straw to break the camel’s back as there is now a march underway that started on Monday, Aug. 28, from Charlottesville, Va. to Washington, D.C. to oppose white supremacy and demand that Trump be removed from office.

The “March to Confront White Supremacy” will take ten days traveling to the U.S. Capitol, where participants will occupy it and engage in non-violent demonstrations with the objective of removing Trump from the presidency. Indeed, this could well be the beginning of Trump’s political road to Waterloo—ignited by his abominable, racist pardon.


Albert Bender
Albert Bender

Albert Bender is a Cherokee activist, historian, political columnist, and freelance reporter for Native and Non-Native publications. He is currently writing a legal treatise on Native American sovereignty and working on a book on the war crimes committed by the U.S. against the Maya people in the Guatemalan civil war He is a consulting attorney on Indigenous sovereignty, land restoration, and Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) issues and a former staff attorney with Legal Services of Eastern Oklahoma (LSEO) in Muskogee, Okla.